To bomb or not to bomb: the Syrian uprising and yet another sterile debate in the western left.
March 23, 2012 Leave a comment
“To believe that the only cause of the uprising is foreign intervention is to dismiss the entire socio-political reality of Syria and the Arab world”
The already one year-old uprising in Syria has sparked yet another fierce debate in the Western left as to whether support a military intervention to stop the killing of civilian population, or search for “softer” means of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad. The absence of reliable information and the media blackout in Syria is contributing to inflaming a debate that in some occasions borders on absurdity, as when journalist Tariq Ali was accused of supporting the discourse of Western imperialism for suggesting the removal of Assad without violence – even when he clearly states that he opposes imperialistic military intervention in Syria.
The debate in the left seems to be polarised between those who claim that a Western intervention would stop the bloodshed, and those who oppose it in light of the catastrophic consequences of previous military interventions in Iraq and Libya. Amidst the crossfire, some voices defend President Bashar al Assad and hail him as an anti-imperialist hero, forgetting that one of the reasons behind the uprising is the strong neoliberalisation of Syrian economy by al-Assad father and son, which alienated and neglected a larger part of their social support.
In this line, there are also those who claim that the Syrian uprising is the entire creation of the CIA, to which they seem to attribute the power to ignite the whole Arab Spring, itself of course seen as a fabrication of infiltrated western agents. It is true that the United States has been planning to redesign the entire Middle East since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the neoliberal onslaught to make it fall under its sphere of influence. But to believe that the only cause of the uprising is foreign intervention is to dismiss the entire socio-political reality of Syria and the Arab world although its complex web of socio-economic and political factors makes any possible uprising too complicated to predict with precision even for the cleverest of analysts. I understand the scepticism in part of the western left against the onslaught of images and words about a country where, paradoxically, no news seem to be able to get out, only videos of violence whose authenticity is difficult to certify; this is, in part, preparation for war, no doubt about it. But even if news about the massacres had been exaggerated and manipulated as some claim, or even if al-Assad’s son pursued a more or less coherent foreign policy as regards the Palestinian conflict, the use of any sort of violence against a part of his own population and the death of one single Syrian citizen should be enough for al-Assad to take full responsibility and resign. Whilst he does not resign, he is admitting that to pay a human price for staying in power is worth it, and this is totally unacceptable. In anyway, I would like al-Assad apologists to explain to me what kind of democracy is one that strips its citizens off their constitutional rights under emergency law for four decades. To me, this is a very strange concept of democracy.
“What is at stake in Syria is not only the democratic aspirations of Syria but also the pipeline power game between the EU and the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other”
I simply refuse to believe that opposing foreign intervention equals sympathising with the oppressive regimes of Russia and China, which equals to claim that criticising US foreign policy, makes you anti-American. However, the polarisation of the debate shows only splinters of half-truths with which constructing an unbiased and compromised narrative becomes a Herculean task. I refuse to believe that such a huge revolt has been sparked by foreign powers although I would concede that they may have profited from the revolt to take advantageous positions in the scramble for Syria that will probably follow the hypothetical fall of al-Assad. Because, let’s be honest, what is at stake in Syria is not only the democratic aspirations of Syria but also the pipeline power game between the EU and the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. This the ultimate truth behind the rhetoric of war incessantly propagated in the western media day after day.
What the debate misses is the plight of a country which is in the middle of the crucial, geostrategic area of the Middle East where antagonist power interests are choking the country, conceding carte-blanche to the bloodshed; everything seems possible before imagining that Russia, China, the US and EU will at some point soften the grip on the succulent business of pipelines that cross Syria into Lebanon into Turkey, which is what they would do if they retained a minimum sense of democratic decency and morality. Unfortunately, this seems to be out of the question despite the pro-democracy discourse pronounced time and again on behalf of the very same powers that ultimately deny it in the name of realpolitik. Syria is a sovereign country and its citizens (be they freedom fighters or Assad supporters) should at least be as worthy of respect as the cubic litres of gas and oil of the country they happen to be living in. What is at stake in Syria is a major power game of influence in which none of the sides is willing to renounce an inch of economic and political influence. That is why geopolitics is crucially important in order to decide the terms of a military intervention because it is clear that none of the “supporting” sides will put the interest of the Syrian people before their geopolitical interests. Surprisingly, geopolitics seems to be of little importance when arguing in favour or against foreign intervention in Syria. Those in favour seem surprisingly unaware of the catastrophic consequences and human toll of NATO “humanitarian” interventions in Libya, Iraq and in Serbia, to give two clear examples.
” History matters because the complex tapestry of ethnic and religious groups that form present Syria has evolved throughout years of living under different kinds of foreign domination”
Situated in the Fertile Crescent, between the desert and the Mediterranean Sea, Syria has a long and fascinating history shaped by the cross-cultural and religious fertilisation of European, African and Asian empires. It might seem irrelevant to overload readers with historical data but in the case of Syria, history matters a lot (1). History matters because the complex tapestry of ethnic and religious groups that form present Syria has evolved throughout years of living under different kinds of foreign domination (e.g. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Ottoman and French colonial rule, and Soviet and US during the Cold War) which has certainly shaped the strong Pan-Arab sentiment of the Syrian people.
Apart from its rich history and the large territory occupied by the Syrian nation, the reason why Syria has attracted the attention of Western powers is, obviously, its strategic situation as a buffer zone between the Mediterranean sea, Iraq and Iran through which important energy transit routes pass. Since 2009, Bashar al Assad has been pursuing an “eastern policy” in terms of energy security that would bring Syria closer to Russia and China via the “Four Seas Strategy”. This energy hub would “turn Damascus into a trade hub among the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea” which would obviously endanger US and EU hegemonic plans of Middle East energetic dominance“. So when I claim that the debate for or againts military intervention in Syria to stop the bloodshed does not take into account larger and deeper energetic issues that concern mainly Russia and the US I am referring precisely to this battle for power to which the lives and legitimate aspirations of Syrians are not the priority. Assad’s plan was enormously ambitious as it purported the energetic unification of the economic space between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran into “a single, larger perimeter [with Turkey, Iran and Russia]…we’re talking about the center of the world”. It does not take a rocket scientist to infer that the EU and the US would not precisely be in favour of the idea of knocking on Syria or Russia’s door in order to have access to to oil and gas reserves in the Arab world and southern Asia. That is why the US, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and China are smuggling weapons into Syria to secure a piece or the whole of the energetic pie. They are benefiting from the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people, a majority of which have been living under the dominance of one religious sect driven to power during the French colonial regime to divide and rule th diverse classes, religious and ethnic groups that form the cultural socio-cultural and political tissue of Syria.
But before oil and gas became important assets in the Middle East as part of the Eurasian important reserves, the Middle East was already important as a transit route between Europe and European colonies in south-east Asia. Hence the mathematical frontiers designed as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement between Great Britain and France after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War 1. After a brief period of French colonial rule, in which the traditionally marginalised Alawi joined forces with the French “to escape Sunni control”, the country became independent in 1946. After a period of political instability and violence, the Baathist party came to power in the 50’s falling thus under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, which continued under the rule of Hafez al-Assad though with significant changes in economic policy. The government of Hafez al-Assad initiated a program of economic liberalisation that alienated the traditional social base of the Ba’ath party, namely, urban and agricultural workers.
With the new liberal-economic reform, the Ba’ath party co-opted a new base of support from the merchant middle class, with which it established bonds of allegiance and gratitude in exchange for lucrative private contracts with entrepreneurs. As a result of the decentralisation of economic policy continued by Bashar al-Assad, the highly subsidised Syrian economy (whose state used to guarantee welfare, jobs and cheap basic goods) was shrunk and its social base of support alienated, especially the agricultural regions like Deraa or Qamishli). It is not surprising to see that the bases of insurrection against al-Assad are precisely the areas where economic discontent and resentment are more visible: whereas Damascus and Aleppo in the west of Syria (where the bourgeois middle class is well rooted) are the cities that seem to gather more support to al-Assad, more neglected eastern cities like Deraa and Homs (more agricultural based) seem to capitalise protests against al-Assad. Needless to say, part of the opposition leading the current insurgence against al-Assad is formed by the Sunni Muslim community (one of the largest religious groups in Syria) who suffered the Hama massacre in 1982, in a revolt that Hafez al-Assad smashed with a bloodbath. And the Sunni grievances are intimately connected with the French colonial rule, which took the alawite minority to power, securing top ranks and representation in the Syrian army that is now killing scores in Homs and Hama.
A key factor will be whether the wealthy middle class will continue to support al-Assad now that his future in power becomes less and less clear. Will they stand with him till the end or will they prefer to safeguard their economic position siding with the opposition? As we can see, the “for or against” debate is not enough to assess the pros and cons of a military intervention in Syria given the complexity of the class, religious and ethnic complexity of Syrian society. If there is something useful the US, Russia and China can do to help the Syrian people is to put all the pressure (especially Russia) on al-Assad to step down (I agree with Tariq Ali on this point) by eroding al-Assad’s base of support among the wealthy middle class. Once this happens, it will be time to the religious, ethnic and political collage of the Syrian opposition (formed by the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian National Council, the left-wing National Coordination Body for Democratic Change and diverse grassroots organisations operating in situ) to take the reins of the country without external interference so that the Syrian people can reconstruct the equilibrium of power in the country. I am aware my words may sound naïve; it is not likely that Russia or the US allow such a geostrategically important country to decide the architecture of energy security in the area with independence. But if the US, Russia and China remain true to their discourse of “freedom” and “democracy”, then it is as simple as that: allow Syria to build its own future and to manage its own natural resources as they wish, just as Mohammad Mosaddegh wanted to do with Iranian oil 60 years ago. The left must call as strongly as possible for a radically new approach to the foreign policy of superpowers (the US, Russia and China) instead of engaging in sterile debates that ultimately benefit the discourse of the right. Favouring military intervention will end up favouring one of the contending sides (possibly the NATO), perpetuating the cycle of grievances that emerge when an external power attempts at controlling the natural resources of a country. The left raise a unified voice that calls for breaking up with this cycle of irrationality that puts economic interests before the lives of people: it is mad, insane and completely out of tune with the democratic demands that the 21st century requires for the entire Middle East. There has been too much suffering, too much bloodshed, too many lies only to further the economic interests of a few wealthy oil and gas corporations.
“the United States (…) do not seem to care about supporting radical armed Islamic fighters (…) instead of supporting the promising secular government”
I find appalling that respected leaders of the Latin American left, whom I wholeheartedly admire and respect, express support for al-Assad simply because he has had (late) recourse to the anti-imperialist discourse only when he has found himself in trouble. Those who defend al-Assad as “anti-imperialist” must remember that his father cooperated with the US in the Gulf War (an imperialist war indeed) as a part of the international coalition, and also collaborated (though quite ambiguously) with George Bush in the US fight against “terror” after 9/11. Al-Assad did not seem to have any trouble either in engaging with a former empire like Russia (Chechnya testifies to the “democratic” solidity of Vladimir Putin) in order to expand the Arab gas pipeline towards the East. As for the United States, they do not seem to care about supporting radical armed Islamic fighters (with the support of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who aim to expanding their influence in Syria) instead of supporting the promising secular government of Bashar al-Assad, or so it seemed when he came to power. The US did support radical Islamism in the past (e.g. the Talibans, Saudi Arabia) and will do it again whenever they need a strong fist to secure natural resources.
As long as foreign policy of economic superpowers continues to conceive of citizens as expendable pawns in the larger chessboard of power games and political influence, no military intervention will solve the problems underlying the Syrian uprising, whose minorities reclaim now the political denied for 50 years under an oppressive alawite regime supported with more or less enthusiasm by the US, Russia and China precisely for instrumental, geopolitical reasons. A military intervention will only perpetuate and deepen resentment, religious divide and conflict because political ascendancy in the country will only be an extension of the hand that rocks the cradle, not the particular nature of the democratic baby and its real necessities and demands. In this sense, it is necessary for the western left to fall time and time again in the trap of the right, that is, the favour or against debate because western left should set its aims at another level.
The Arab Spring and the revolts in many other countries demand something else from the left than submissively following the simplistic agenda of the right. Instead, it must focus on building a coherent strategy for building up a world free from the tyranny of instrumental reason that still dominates much of current thinking in politics, like Madeleine Albright chilling admittance that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children (more than in Hiroshima) due to the US sanctions during the 90’s: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”. This has been the narrative linking thread throughout 200 years of European imperialism and Syria is not an exception. The enormous environmental, political and economic challenges of the new century requires policy makers with a vision of a fairer and more democratic world where human lives are not just a price to pay, that the lives of Syrians and their right to reclaim sovereignty and freedom to decide their own future without interference should be more important than gallons of petrol and litres of gas.
Volker Perthes, Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change, Routledge, 2006.
Miriam Cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official, Duke University Press, 2007